I was 12 years old when singer Paul Simon recorded the song My Little Town. I could not afford to buy the album it was on, so instead I immediately purchased the much cheaper 45rpm single. I brought it home and played it over and over and over until my older sister barged into my room yelling if she ‘heard that damn song echoing through her bedroom wall one more time, she was going to smash my record into a zillion pieces’. I believed her. She had experience. There was an oft repeated family story of a very little Ellen and her twin brother Arthur using Mom’s old 78rpm records as Frisbees against the basement wall, loudly laughing with glee as shellac shards exploded everywhere. Mom still bemoans the loss of her favorite Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Andrew Sister’s records at the hands of her heedless children. I was already too attached to my new record to allow it to meet the same demise.
Growing up, there always seemed to be music in our house. In between weather and traffic reports on the hour, Mom would sing along to the staticy radio that sat atop the refrigerator playing the soft music she grew up with. Dad occasionally rattled the windows blasting his Beethoven albums on Sunday mornings. Ellen taught herself guitar and banjo. Sam’s ability to play trumpet got him assigned to the Stateside Army band instead of Vietnam. Arthur owned some novelty records by Soupy Sales and Lou Monte that opened my eyes to that whole genre of music. Neil and his then girlfriend, later wife, Martha would occasionally make their own attempt to stumble through the guitar chords to the songs on his favorite folkie records by Gordon Lightfoot, Jim and Ingrid Croce, Simon and Garfunkel and Tom Paxton.
I got hooked on Paul Simon through borrowing Neil’s old records. Simon’s songs, like my favorites by the Beatles, felt like tight little stories or poetry, full of creative imagery that somehow made more sense in my world then the heavier more ominous Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Springsteen stuff the other kids at school were into. My hormone-driven lonely preteen angst caused me to desperately relate to My Little Town, Simon’s homage to the part of Queens he was raised in, a mere 2 miles from where I lived.
Coming home after school
Riding my bike past the gates of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging out shirts in the dirty breeze
I did not have to close my eyes to picture what he was singing about, I just had to look out my window. Even at my age, the concept of waxing nostalgic about a place and time that really was not that great, made perfect sense to me. The only difference was, I had not escaped it yet. I was still living in the thick of it.
In my little town I never meant nothing
I was just my father’s son
Born during the last gasp of the Baby Boom, I was an oops child, dramatically younger than my siblings. That age gap caused me to feel disconnected from everyone else in our busy house and the aging of the neighborhood with less children and more old people, made me feel just as isolated outside too. I felt like another nameless kid stuck growing up in a working-class neighborhood that’s only unique feature that differentiated it from the rest of New York City was its massive amounts of cemeteries.
Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
Neil used to jokingly describe our neighborhood’s social strata as ‘upper poverty’ but even though New York in the early 1970s was bankrupt, dangerous and dirty, my world was never really that bleak. My unhappiness was self-inflicted. Luckily, time, age and distance have tinkered with my yellow edged memories to the point that for I really can’t say for certain if my childhood was good or bad. I can only confirm from Dad’s old Polaroids, that it was mine.
Earlier this year my brother Arthur described his childhood as crap but I’m not sure he really meant it or his recollections are just as muddy and blurred as mine. Though I think we both agree that our ‘little town’ was a great place to move away from.
Recently, Arthur posted online a very heartfelt piece about growing up with no real belief or expectations of seeing much of the world beyond our local streets. Yet now his extra-paged passport is filled with stamps from his travels all around the world lecturing, writing and rubbing shoulders with performers and Nobel Prize winners. He escaped our ‘little town’ through his brains, attending MIT up in Boston. Actually, my whole family left. Sam was the first, moving to Connecticut. Neil went there too and then later made his way to Ohio, while Ellen headed to the warm south.
On the flight back from a recent trip to Iceland, I found myself flipping through my passport thinking about what my brother wrote. I too am sometimes amazed by how far from the old neighborhood my life has taken me. I broke away from ‘my little town’ before I started High School when my folks and I moved to Florida for Dad’s work. Summers, I spent visiting my adult siblings. Suddenly I believed I could live anywhere and eventually I took a job where I traveled all over the country.
Some people are content to never leave the place they are born while others can’t wait to get away. I’m glad I left but I also realize I would not be the man I am, if I was not raised there. It is a part of me that continues to shape my views and opinions of everything. I’ve gone back to visit and from the outside some things have changed while others are the exact same. Last month I even found current photos of our old bedrooms on Zillow.
Although I might not have my own Wikipedia page like Arthur does, I still feel like I’ve taken the good from my past while moving beyond the constraints of ‘my little town’ to become more than just my Father’s son.
And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town